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Process behind conducting a large-scale controlled burn

For the men and women who start controlled burns, it’s a concise, calm, calculated event....
For the men and women who start controlled burns, it’s a concise, calm, calculated event. WTOC's Jamie Ertle takes you behind the scenes.(WTOC)
Updated: Apr. 27, 2021 at 4:20 PM EDT
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FORT STEWART, Ga. (WTOC) - Thick smoke billowing almost a mile high from the forest. At times, it can look apocalyptic from cities away.

“It’s under control, we’re doing it for the military and endangered species,” Bryan Whitmore, the forestry supervisor, said.

For the men and women who start these fires, it’s a concise, calm, and calculated event. From the first tabletop meeting to the in-the-field briefing.

It is all about the forecast and the “burn prescription.”

“It’s written before we burn the unit, so that dictates the fuel moisture, the RH, the current lift, dispersion, wind direction, wind speed. So, before we even burn a block or think about burning a block, we make sure that area’s weather is going to be in prescription, to make sure the fire stays under control and does what we want it to do,” Whitmore said.

While the technicians seem to be taking care of the job with flame throwers, something smaller is dropped from above - ping pong balls.

Hundreds of plastic balls filled with potassium permanganate are dropped into the burn zone after this machine injects them with glycol. The chemical reaction gives us little fire balls.

The pilot flies around the perimeter of the 294 acre fire. She will not fly through the smoke as the fire creates visibility issues and potential engine problems.

The fire is burning in a uniform direction and that is all planned.

“What you see behind me is a backing fire, it’s being backed into the wind. A heading fire is the complete opposite, it is being pushed by the wind, so it’ll run. That is what we’re trying to avoid during a controlled burn,” Whitmore said.

This fire is small in comparison to some you may see. The largest burn could be 12,000 acres at once at the artillery impact area where soldiers shoot rounds.

“Boundaries staying where it needs to stay,” Whitmore said.

So, while it looks awful and the ash may be alarming, it is a necessity.

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